Southgate resolute England can counter Wales’ fire with ‘ruthless’ skill

<span>Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA</span>
Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

Gareth Southgate’s words were diplomatic but his eyes and broad smile told the real story. The subject was that video, the one of the Wales squad celebrating wildly upon England’s Euro 2016 exit against Iceland in the last 16. Would the England manager draw upon it before the World Cup meeting with Wales on Tuesday night?

“I couldn’t say,” Southgate replied. “We are aware of some of that but I couldn’t say if we would use it or not …”

As Southgate trailed off, all that was missing from him was a nod. The clip had landed, all right. Southgate was an observer for Uefa’s technical committee that night rather than a part of the England setup but he felt it – a shovel of salt to an open wound.

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The subsequent Wales explanations did not exactly smooth things over – the protestations of having been lost in the romance of Iceland’s moment, the kinship with an underdog nation. Perhaps the Wales players were just sorry that the footage had leaked. Then again maybe they were not.

Luke Shaw has already referenced it here in Qatar, the defender saying that England are a “respectful group” who “do things in the right way”. In other words, they would not gloat at the demise of a rival. But the dynamics of an England fixture against one of the home nations have long been peculiarly lopsided, the impression being that they do not have as much to gain in victory and so much more to lose in defeat.

Eddie Jones, the England rugby union head coach and a confidant of Southgate’s, has often said the home nations want to beat his team more than anything and it has been possible to argue that Wales would paint their World Cup as a relative success if they were to win “The Battle of Britain” – even if it were not enough to carry them through to the last 16.

Southgate might not have chosen to have a derby like this at a major tournament, loaded with the potential for chaos, when control can be difficult to find. It did not work out too well when it last came up – the second group game at Euro 2020, when his team laboured to a 0-0 draw against Scotland, the manager saying the heat of the occasion had affected his players.

Southgate described the game as a “reference point”, one in which Scotland “found a level physically they hadn’t found before and couldn’t find in the game after”. Then again, he continued, was it not ever thus when England play? He noted how the USA had covered more ground against his team in the 0-0 draw last Friday than any other opponent across his six-year tenure. “It will be interesting to see if they can replicate that in their next game,” he said.

England are crushed after losing against Iceland at Euro 2016.
England are crushed after losing against Iceland at Euro 2016. Photograph: JMP/Shutterstock

Southgate will not shy from embracing the emotion of the showpiece at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium. He wants to channel it. “If people want to say that Wales will have more passion, then no problem, but they wouldn’t know our dressing room very well. Or any of the England dressing rooms I was in as a player. That’s an easy narrative for people to say. It’s not my experience of it.”

On the other hand, Southgate knows cool heads must accompany the hot hearts. As ever, balance is everything. “You have to match the spirit [of Wales] and display the quality with the ball that allows us to be ruthless. We have to make sure our emotional focus is on what we do well.”

It has been easy to see the parallels between England’s Euro 2020 campaign and their World Cup so far. An encouraging victory in the opening match (Croatia at the European Championship; Iran here) followed by an underwhelming stalemate after which the team were booed off. And now, as before the Czech Republic fixture at Euro 2020, there is the demand for a cohesive, front-footed win – and featuring a fresh face in the forward line. Against the Czechs, the clamour was for Jack Grealish, who came in and played well. Now it is for Phil Foden.

Southgate, who is into his fourth World Cup, is all too familiar with the drama, including those around team selection. “When I was playing, the players were more narky about it. Every country has got it. We are 32 teams … 26 are in crisis at the moment.

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“Every individual country has their support entirely focused on them. You have to live with that, be strong enough and calm enough to come through that. You are never sitting comfortably and, if we were, that would be a worry because you don’t want that comfort. You need an edge.”

The key difference between now and the European Championship or, indeed, the 2018 World Cup, is that Southgate’s team have not qualified after two games. England need something against Wales, especially to progress as the group leaders, although they do not need very much to avoid elimination – anything other than a four-goal defeat.

Southgate will make changes against a Wales team he suspects could change their system. “Every team we have played has defended slightly differently against us because they recognise our threat,” he said.

England defeated Wales at the Euro 2016 group stage with a last-gasp Daniel Sturridge goal but it was Wales who went further, all the way to the semi-finals, and how they revelled in the achievement. It has not been forgotten.